The Three Gorges

I was out for my morning run and ended up down by the Yangtze river where the tourist boats moor. Above me on a hill was a sign with the message “175” and a horizontal line. I had seen several of these in recent days, as this is the final water level for the Yangtze once the “3 Gorges Dam” project is complete. Currently, the level is at 156 metres, so there is a further 19 metres to go before finished.

 

It is hard to visualize 156 metres of flooding, but around me was one sign: the new city of Badong. Some 3 years old, the previous city was somewhere beneath me under water. Where else would you get a city of several hundred thousand built in a few years? Today I would not only get a chance to see the 3 Gorges, or what was left of them, but also to visit one of the engineering marvels of the world: the dam itself.

After three days of bouncing around in vehicles investigating the potential alignment of my new expressway project, we had decided to take the fast boat back to Yichang rather than drive. Not only would it be 3 vs 5 hours, but much more comfortable. Besides, like taking a train, going on a boat is always a special treat for me.

We boarded at 08:15 and were off at 08:30. The boat was a Russian built hydrofoil and was very fast. You only appreciated how fast when passing the slow moving barges which plied the river. These were piled high with coal and other bulk commodities. I was surprised to even see multi-tiered vessels carrying new cars. Inland waterways are still important in China, although Anil noted that the traffic was much less than a few years ago when he last visited the river.

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There were also passenger vessels which travelled at a much more leisurely pace than we did.  A popular trip is to do a 3 day cruise from Chonqing to Wuhan, something that my colleague Dawei did six years ago. He commented that everything looked so different now—not surprising given the rise in water level.

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It is clear why the 3 gorges have such a special place to the Chinese. The area really is beautiful, with the steep hills running down into the water. The photos below give an inadequate impression of the beauty of the area; imagine what it was like before the water level was raised!

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Unfortunately, like all good things it was over too quickly and we reached the dock above the dam where we had to go ashore.  We were quickly inundated with people selling books and other souvenirs but managed to weave our way through them and board our bus which the client had arranged, complete with English speaking guide! They always take such good are of us here in China … We were driven down to the dam which, is the biggest lump of concrete that I have ever seen.

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We were first taken to a welcome centre which had a model of the dam. It showed the dam, as well as the ship locks on the north bank. There is also a ship elevator under construction, but this is not yet operational. Unfortunately, the room was clogged with tour groups, each of whose guides was trying to out-yell the other guides. The noise level is very hard for me at times here in China…

First the statistics: Cost was about US$ 25 billion. Some 26 million tons of concrete, 250,000 thousand tons of steel, 26 turbogenerators, 40,000 laborers, fifty billion cubic yards of water impounded. 1.2 miles/2.3 km wide. We are talking big.

Talked about for many years, the dam construction started in 1993 and the resevoir started filling in 2003. It is expected to become fully operational in about 2009.

It was fascinating to hear about some of the factors that went into the design. For example, it is designed to take a small nuclear bombing and, according to Anil, the location on the river was selected because it was difficult for the (then) cruise missile technology to fly in to hit the dam. They noted that in the event of war the water level would be immediately reduced by 2/3 so as prevent any flooding in the event of an attack; however, they also said that China’s nuclear arsenal was the best deterrent. 

One of the ship locks was under service and I got the photo below. It is unfortunate that there is no way of getting the scale of things … but given that they can hold two or more of the large barges we saw on the river, it is huge.

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We were able to visit the top of the dam. It was strange because we had to go through a security check as if we were going through the airport checkin. We were only allowed to take our cameras and cell phones so our guide was given all sorts of goodies to hold on. After aninterminable wait we boarded electric buses which drove us to the cnetre of the dam for a short walk around. Made one appreciate the scale of things. As does the photo below taken downstream…

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OK. So much for the engineering marvels. What about the  negative impacts? Besides resettling some 1 million+ people, there are of course a few other minor problems. Like the 600 km (370 mile) long reservoir inundating some 1,300 archaeological sites and altering the legendary beauty of the Three Gorges. The Chinese river dolphin was already on the verge of distinction, so the dam won’t help. In fact, Anil told me the story how there is a huge 500 kg catfish that they discussed protecting on a potential downstream Bank project. One response was that by the time the project was done “the last 100 will have been eaten” so protection wasn’t necessary.

So on that positive note I’ll sign off …

 

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